Monday, March 13, 2017

13th March, 2017 Rewarding Work

Establishing a reward

Sometimes the best reward that you can give a horse is to simply leave him alone – by standing still or walking away from him. This is especially important to nervous or untouched horses where they don’t yet value being touched. Technically this is not a ‘reward’ but the cessation of a stimulus but I don’t want to get into semantics. Once a horse likes being touched then a deep flat rub (rather than a pat) is a good reward. Soothing words in a calm deep voice can also be used as a reward rather than loud exclamations of joy that we might use with a child. Like patting, I don’t think horses understand shouting or applause and it lights them up rather than calms them down. Horses prefer to be calm rather than lit up and I prefer to be around horses that are calm and not lit up.

Walking a horse forward can be used as a reward when you have been asking the horse to stand still while you work with him. Getting off your horse or ending the session can also be a powerful reward where the horse has performed well or suddenly understood something you have been teaching him.

If I use food as a reward then I tend to use it in conjunction with a click so that the horse learns only to expect food from the hand when it has heard a click first. This avoids the horse learning to nudge or mug you for food and is a useful discipline. Clicker training is one of the nicest forms of horsemanship and yet it needs to be applied in a disciplined way; you need to think about what you are teaching and I would always suggest that you have a training session on it before experimenting with it. There can be some unfortunate consequences if your training is haphazard or the horse is too food orientated.

There are some basic rules to clicker training:

1.    Click when you see the behaviour that you want – the treat should be given within 3 seconds

2.    Never click and treat for the pony pushing at you or touching your body – use a target.

3.    Never give free treats – they must always be earned and always always follow a click – if you want to feed otherwise, put it in a bucket!

4.    Think carefully about what you are training. Don’t reward behaviour that is going to become a nuisance.

It’s worth reading up a lot more or getting further advice/ practical sessions if you want to use clicker training extensively.

I think it is well worth every horse being taught the association between a click and a treat and how to follow a target – they rarely forget it even if you don’t use it all of the time or for a very long time. It can come in very useful in training and especially in emergencies.

I tend to use a three click system when working with clicker. One click (no reward) to mean, clicker is available or keep on doing what you are doing, one click (no treat) to mean keep on doing what you are doing, and click, click, click with a treat to mean well done, job done. I've lost count of the number of horses that this has helped.